A solitary walker: On foot in a troubled paradise

Orchids and ferns grow next to hardened lava in Hawaii.

Orchids and ferns grow next to hardened lava in Hawaii. Micki Colbeck


For the Valley News

Published: 11-26-2023 4:33 PM

Walking on a path through black lava, I stopped to look at a fern, the ae fern. These small Polypodiums pushed up through the five-year-old smooth, black, pillowy folds of pahoehoe lava and chunky aa lava that looked somewhat like badly burnt brownies. Young ohia trees, cousins to the sweetgale that grows in Upper Valley wetlands, sprouted up in the crevasses. Tiny bamboo orchids, miniature versions of the showy lady’s slippers we cherish in Strafford’s town forest, splattered pink and white across the black and brown basalts. On the edges of the burn were islands of green that still stood, ohias, tree ferns, and sword ferns, all looking rather scorched. Below my feet, lay a subdivision of 700 homes, now gone.

I had come to the big Island of Hawaii in late October to learn about the ferns, trees, geology, birds, and culture after an invitation from an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years. She was an artisan chef, retired now, but still catering from her home, the “Café at the End of the World.” She and her partner live in a house he built from the screw pine, ohia, monkeypod, and rainbow eucalyptus trees on their land. Their wood-grained house with large windows and a wraparound covered porch the Hawaiians call lanai sat on the windward side of a rim of an old crater on the East Rift Zone in Puna, with 200 inches of yearly rain and a view to the sea. The lava flowed around them on every side in 2018, isolating them and a few neighbors. The seven hundred houses in Leilani Estates, near their house, were covered. The few remaining residents had bulldozed a new road with a strong padlocked gate at the end.

With roads gone, electricity cut off — if you weren’t already off the grid — water supply severed, only the resilient survive on Hawaii. I heard about government failures, and even plots to get rid of the poor and the natives. Many people had lost their homes in the past and rebuilt without permits because they said they are nearly impossible to obtain. A flow in the 1980s moved so slowly that people moved their houses on flatbed trailers.

Stratovolcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens, are high in silica, therefore sticky, and explosive. The shield volcanoes of Hawaii are basaltic, less viscous, and capable of longer flows, however Kilauea, 20 miles away and the most active volcano on earth, produced some surprisingly sticky, explosive lava in 2018, with lava bombs and fountains. Mythology tells of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess who rises from Kilauea when she erupts. Over 13.7 square miles of lava, including 875 acres of new shoreline flowed in 2018.

Unlike Vermont, you can’t just drill a well to find sweet water, so catchment systems collect rainwater from roofs. I kept seeing above ground swimming pools covered with black tarps in yards, only they weren’t pools, but catchments. Hanneke, a friend from the Netherlands, planted her several acres with trees, ferns and orchids, then built a tiny house on top of her concrete catchment. “We used to bicycle down to the crater and swim in the lake at the top, and in the warm pools by the sea. Some great surfing beaches were down there. Now it is all gone. We have lost so much.” I heard that lament often: “We have lost so much.”

The padlocked gate was there because of stealing, and to keep out gawkers who came by the hundreds to see the destruction, and to illegally hike along a volcanic fissure. When my host was evacuated, someone stole his young fruit trees and wild bird’s nest ferns from up in the old mango trees. He had recently been robbed at his own house by some local toughs. A neighbor explained to me that the native Hawaiians have been kept out of the prosperity brought by the statehood they didn’t want, and by tourism, which took more of their sacred places. They continue to be taken from, so sometimes, the disenfranchised will take back. Gated, and padlocked driveways held signs saying keep out, no trespassing, beware of dog, no parking, no hiking.

Why do people live near volcanoes? Land is cheap. The resort industry was buying up beachfront property until the eruption, then sold out. Volcanic soils are fertile. Fruit trees grow abundantly. Mango, papaya, limes, guava, passion fruit, bananas, and avocados grew here around the house, and a strange fruit called mangosteen, that looks like a wooden apple, yet has sweet and earthy white sections inside. Plant seeds on this soil and, in several years, you can be harvesting fruits. To reclaim your lava-covered property, hire a dozer to scrape away until hitting something hard that you can build your house on. Haul in some soil and plant trees. The ferns will come.

The Polynesians had paddled here in double-hulled canoes around the same time Leif Ericson sailed to Vinland, approximately 1000 to 1200 AD, carrying pigs, chickens, dogs, the roots of taro and sweet potato, seeds and saplings of coconut, banana, and sugar cane. The soundtrack on these islands is of roosters crowing from 6 a.m. sunup to 6 p.m. sunset. Chickens pecked along every road and at every house. The wild pigs rooted up gardens and fields unless fenced out. I heard them grunting off in the woods as I hiked in the morning to watch the sun come up over the sea. Our dog, Robby, a pit bull mix, would jump the electric wire around the property and kill a pig, keeping guard until it began to rot before eating. He wore the scars of battles on his nose and sides. I rubbed his head during breakfast, sneaking him a bite of my meal.

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In this land of abundance, there is also a sadness, letting things go, in knowing that Pele could take everything you have built. Coming home to Vermont, after three weeks away, the first thing I wanted to do was go to the town recycling center to see my community. Vermont, where we keep an eye on our rivers and have our own problems with inequality and crime, this frosty land of apples and maple trees, long-dormant mountain-building, clean air, and abundant water, welcomed me home.

Micki Colbeck lives in Strafford.